I just spent about a week staying and practicing Buddhism at the Sōgen-ji Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Okayama City, Japan. Sōgen-ji is known for its long-time abbot, Shodo Harada Roshi, who many people have told me is one of the few great living Zen masters. I had heard of Shodo Harada Roshi for years before my visit, since he is the longtime teacher of my teacher Ryoshin Paul Haller (the abbot of the SF Zen Center), and of Soryu Forall (the Dharma heir of my teacher Shinzen Young). Harada Roshi also apparently has written a few books and offers yearly retreats at the One Drop Zendo on Whidbey Island in Washington State near Seattle, which some of my Zen friends have apparently attended.
People warned me before I got to India. They said: traffic is insane, Indians drive along constantly honking, everything is dirty, cows wander on the streets, men pee along city streets, people throw trash down anywhere and everywhere, it’s such a mix of people and cultires, it’s the land of extremes. They said, it’s an assault on the senses – a barrage of colors, beauty and ugliness, words, music, sounds, smells. Not much works efficiently, logically, predictably. People told me: nothing can prepare you. So, I took all their words to heart, and was ready for too much.
I realize that many of my reasons for coming here to Asia for a year of travel were not conscious to me before I got here. As many of my friends know, however, the biggest conscious motivation for my journey was to experience “spiritual practice” (mostly Buddhism, but yoga/Hinduism too) in the old countries. I mean, it stands to reason that, if one wants the authentic, deep, true experience, one heads to the point of origin – amirite?
I just finished visits to the astounding Ajanta and Ellora caves, both World Heritage Sites, in the middle of the Indian state of Maharashtra. These cave systems are thirty and thirty-four, respectively, huge caves, hand-carved over decades, chip by chip, out of solid cliffside rock. Many of them contain elaborate religious detail-work.
Years ago, a friend wrote home that he had reviewed the Landmark Education Forum personal growth course while traveling in Asia. At the time. I thought to myself, man that’s a great idea. Inspired by that, I just reviewed the Landmark Advanced Course this last weekend, here in Mumbai/Bombay India.
I just finished a refreshing five-day meditation retreat the Bodhi Zendo monastery in south India. It felt wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful to be there – Bodhi Zendo is, I think, one of the most tranquil and pleasant places I have been in my life. My time there was certainly a refreshing and quiet contrast with the chaotic overwhelm that for me has often characterized traveling in India.
My last night in North India, after three weeks there, was an emotional one. I was in Bodhgaya, a town best known as the spot where Buddha yes THE Buddha attained full liberation/enlightenment, after he sat all night under a tree in the middle of the open field. Modern Bodhgaya is no longer that serene, 2,500 years later. Instead, it has paved streets full of the typical busy Indian overwhelm that I have become familiar with – jostling noisy crowds of people vehicles and cows, people constantly coming up wanting me to buy something, crumbly buildings and homes, and even snaggle-toothed beggars wearing dirty rags and holding outstretched hands (which is actually a rare sight for me in India).
I just spent a few weeks at Wat Ram Poeng, a temple two miles southwest of Chiang Mai that features an English-language meditation program. Perhaps it is less accurate to say that Wat Ram Poeng “features an English-language meditation program”, and it is more accurate to say that they provide space for foreigners to meditate. Almost all of what I did during my time there was meditate by myself, eight to fourteen hours a day, inside the simple, clean, comfortable, and pleasant little room they provided me with. I alternated sitting meditation, mostly on the bed, with equal lengths of time doing walking meditation, slowly pacing back and forth the length of the room.
After my retreat at Wat Pah Nanachat, I rode trains for a couple days to get to Wat Suan Mokkh International Meditation Hermitage, and sit a ten day meditation retreat there. Suan Mokkh is a meditation center located on the long narrow peninsula that extends from Bangkok south to Malaysia. Similarly to Wat Pah Nanachat and Ajahn Chah, the Suan Mokkh IMH was founded by one of the more famous twentieth century Thai Buddhist masters (in this case, Buddhadasa Bikkhu) as a place for Westerners who wanted to study with him but could not understand the language at his Thai-language monastery.
I just finished a two week stay at Wat Pah Nanachat monastery, here in Thailand. Quoting Wikipedia, Wat Pah Nanachat (spelled วัดป่านานาชาติ in Thai, and meaning “International Forest Monastery”) is situated in a small forest in north-east Thailand about ten miles outside of the city of Ubon Rachathani. The eminent Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah established the monastery in 1975 to serve as a training community for the many Europeans, Americans, and other non-Thais who were pursuing study with him along traditional Thai Forest monastic lines at his famous Thai-Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery. Wat Pah Nanachat’s monks, novices and postulants include a wide range of nationalities, but the primary language of communication and instruction is English.
Going to university in Santa Cruz, though, I got all into psychospiritual growth – Buddhist meditation, psychology and therapy, hatha yoga, twelve step programs, communication skills and processing, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass, holotropic breathwork, sweat lodges, encounter groups, men’s circles – and workshops, endless workshops. Exploring, deepening, and expanding the psyche felt more real and more compelling to me than making art or music. In this world, where there’s politics people, travel people, money-making people, creative people, hipster people, sports people – I found that I am a psychospirtual growth person.